One year after 17 North American missionaries were kidnapped in Haitistarting a two-month ordeal before they finally became freethe agency that sent them has not returned there permanently, and several other international groups have also reduced their activity there.
The kidnapping highlighted a deterioration of the security situation which got worse last year, with Haitian leaders call for the deployment of foreign troops to help break the crippling grip of gang activity and protest.
The group of missionaries, including five minors ranging from infant to teenager, were abducted on October 16, 2021, while returning from a visit to an orphanage supported by their organization, Christian Aid Ministries.
It was the largest such kidnapping in recent years, although hundreds of kidnappings have targeted Haitian nationals and attracted little international attention.
Hostage takers of the notorious 400 Mawozo gang demanded a ransom of 1 million dollars for each victim, says CAM. After two were released on medical grounds and three others ransomed by a third party for an undisclosed amount, the the remaining 12 became free On December 16 after what they described as a nocturnal escape.
The standoff came just months after a presidential assassination and an earthquake that killed and injured thousands.
Currently, basic supplies such as fuel and water have dwindled since a powerful gang took control of a main fuel terminal in the capital, Port-au-Prince. Demonstrators blocked roads to protest a spike in fuel prices, and gas stations and schools closed.
Some North American CAM workers have been in Haiti over the past year, “checking things out as they can,” spokesman Weston Showalter said. But there is no timetable for a permanent return.
“It seems that things are more difficult there than ever,” he said, adding that the work of Haitian staff is also hampered by the crisis.
The kidnapped missionaries included 16 Americans and one Canadian. Christian Aid Ministries, based in Berlin, Ohio, is supported by conservative Mennonite, Amish, Brethren and related groups. The agency, which has worked in Haiti since the 1980s, weighs the lessons of 2021.
“We’ve become hypersensitive to risk,” Showalter said. “So particularly the issue of having women and children there, I would say that’s a big talking point.”
Other faith-based bodies are also struggling to respond to Haiti’s plight.
“There is no clear path,” said Alex Morse, associate regional director for Latin America and the Caribbean for Church World Service, a partnership of more than 30 Christian denominations and communions in the United States that provides development assistance and disaster relief worldwide.
In August, CWS decided to operate its remaining programs in Haiti with only local staff – agriculture and food security programs in the northwest, housing construction and social support for children in the southwest.
Morse worked in the country after a devastating earthquake in 2011 and recalls that many Haitians found resilience in their belief in God.
It’s different now.
“I hear people say they’ve lost hope,” he said. “People who turned quickly to their faith – we hear less about that.”
Patrick Nelson, a Haitian who is the main representative of the CWS in the country, said that children and students “want to go to school and study right now, take courses, but schools and universities are closed” .
However, he said people are discouraged but not desperate.
“If people didn’t have faith in God or hope things could be different in Haiti, they wouldn’t be on the streets demanding change,” Nelson said via email.
One of the members of the CWS is the Church of the Brethren, which has offered programs for more than 20 years in Haiti and has 30 congregations there. It had a main base in Croix-des-Bouquets, near Port-au-Prince, but the area has been an epicenter of gang activity, according to Jeffrey Boshart, director of the church’s World Food Initiative.
Earlier this year, one of the program’s drivers was kidnapped – but later released – and his vehicle stolen, Boshart said, prompting the church to suspend all activities in the Port-au- Prince. The remaining programs, involving agriculture, clean water and building homes, are mostly in rural areas far from the capital and staffed entirely by Haitians, he added.
Boshart said the church also sharply cut a mobile medical clinic program because several of the Haitian doctors who participated fled to the United States.
Catholic Relief Services has more than 200 staff in the country, almost all Haitian, but they largely work remotely. Many of their outreach and healthcare activities are on hold.
“The roads are blocked and they cannot drive to the office,” said Akim Kikonda, the CRS country representative. “There’s no gas to drive their cars, and in some cases there’s no internet at the office.”
He added: “You can imagine our frustration…when we see the needs are greater than they’ve ever been, but we’re not in a position to go and meet those needs.”
He hopes international supporters will rally behind Haiti.
“Haiti has been close to the edge so many times and has always been able to come back,” Kikonda said. “This time I see a very difficult and trying situation, hoping there is a light, but personally I don’t see it yet.”
Living Waters for the World, a U.S.-based nonprofit that provides clean water systems to many countries, has been able to continue its work in Haiti because much of it is done by Haitians, said Bob McCoy, moderator of his Haitian network coordination team.
International visits continue, although carefully planned.
“The kidnapping was a very unfortunate situation,” McCoy said. “Are we worried about that? You bet. We try to stay smart about what we do. This does not prevent us from going there.
Meanwhile, a new book published by CAM gives its official account of the kidnapping and includes interviews with the hostages, their families and CAM officials.
“Kidnapped in Haiti,” written by Katrina Hoover Lee, reveals that while CAM had a longstanding no-ransom policy, board members weren’t as committed to it as they thought in the face of a real-life crisis .
In internal debates, the book says, some have asked, “Was it reasonable to risk human lives for a matter that was not stated in the scriptures?”
The ministry eventually agreed to offer humanitarian aid to the kidnappers, which they rejected. He then reluctantly accepted a third party’s offer to pay a ransom.
Showalter said CAM “still has no details on who paid or how much was included.” The ransom took place in December and the hostages were told they would all be released. But they said that due to internal gang disputes, the kidnappers only released three.
The remaining hostages prayed and worshiped together daily. They also debated intensely whether to attempt an escape. Eventually, they all agreed to try. According to their accounts, they broke through a barricaded door after midnight on December 16 and walked for miles to safety.
Showalter said the ministry is continuing its work in other countries and will consider returning to Haiti.
One of the former hostages, Dale Wideman, returns to the mission field for a stay in Liberia, where CAM supplies medical clinics.
His experience in Haiti motivated him to help others. “It reminded me of everything I was given growing up in Canada in a good, solid home,” said Wideman, of Moorefield, Ont. He recalled the extreme poverty in Haiti, with many young people joining gangs “looking for every possible way to get a meal and earn a few dollars”.
“I’d love to say I wouldn’t make those choices if I was in their situation, but I have no idea,” Wideman, 25, said. “Our worlds are so different. I feel like I should give back.
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